Monday, August 16, 2010

Some Things Aren't Meant to be Fixed

I'm pissed off.

I recently went to Ottawa to see the fam and friends. My cousin T, who fits into both categories, came from Toronto to visit for a weekend. And my mom dropped the bomb.

"Your mom and I went to the farm the last time I went for a visit," my mom said to T.

"We went and peeked into the windows. They bricked over a bunch of the windows on the front. I don't know why they would do that, I mean, who would bother to come up and look into them?"

"You mean besides you and Aunt J, you peeping Toms" I said to my mom in an attempt to make light of what she had just told us.

My mom and her siblings grew up on the above-mentioned farm. My grandma was born on the farm. She moved out about a year after my grandpa died. The above picture is of T, me and my sister, M, in front of the house.

When I was a kid, I spent many a hot summer day reading in the house. Though my love of reading had started when I was little, I think it was cemented by all the time I spent reading in that old house. There was a synergy between the house and story-telling in general. Old homes have stories. Old homes know all the family secrets.

My great grandfather, Saville Simpson, enjoyed writing, particularly poetry. I never met him as he died before I was born, but his photos hint at a kind, gentle spirit. My mom's stories of him confirm this.

I have long wanted to write a novel with that house as its inspiration. More than the short stories I put together a while back for grandma - something major. Something with depth that gives that house the respect it deserves.

But now I feel just about as ripped off as I felt when I found out the house had to be sold to strangers. How can I be inspired when I know the windows at the front of the house have been bricked over? I'm fully, painfully aware that the farm no longer belongs to my family. But what reason could there be to cover perfectly good windows that bring light into the house? Who the fuck wants a dark living room? Seriously folks, some things aren't meant to be fixed.

Unless it means they ripped down the wall between the living room and what was later, during my lifetime, grandpa's bedroom. The same room that I cried myself to sleep in, breathing in his scent as he lay dying of cancer in a hospital. It just gets worse, doesn't it?

I certainly don't think I had the closest relationship with my grandparents and I haven't deluded myself into thinking my mom, aunt and uncles had a perfect life on the farm. Far from it, in fact - it was a tough life.

The funny thing is, many of my memories of being there are of the house itself. I can hear the sound of the gravel road under the wheels of my parents' car as we drove up to the house. I can feel the wood of the sturdy kitchen table under my palms. I can hear the water splashing in the basin as grandpa washed up before lunch, back in the days before they installed plumbing. And any time I read a book that takes place on a farm? I picture at least parts of it looking like the home on RR1, Glencoe, Ontario.

Someday I will write my own book. I'm just going to have to do it before my memory starts to fail me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why I could never be a daily reporter

I loved being a reporter. I loved the buzz of getting a story done on deadline, finding a new spin on it, getting the perfect source to give me the juicy tidbit no one else had. A lot of people asked me why I stopped doing it on a full-time basis.

Out of j-school I landed a news editor's job, followed by a reporting job on Parliament Hill. Then I moved across the country. I started freelancing for niche publications - community papers mainly, various magazines. Why not be a reporter full-time?

Well, the natural step would have been to start hunting down a job at a major daily. Better money, greater recognition. Sounds just about right. Except for one thing. In most cases, you don't start with a sweet little niche. You start with general city reporting. City Hall I could handle, I'd done the politics thing. But the guy goes crazy and shoots his entire family? It's that kind of shit I couldn't handle.

When I was 12, there were a few missing-kids' cases in Toronto. I won't forget Christine Jessop. Her body was found on New Year's Eve. My dad was a TV reporter. He got the call shortly before midnight that a body, likely hers, was found. It was confirmed the next day. I honestly don't know how my dad did it without it destroying his spirit. And reporters will continue to do it for many years to come. Not me though. I have issues with death and remaining detached when I write about it simply doesn't happen.

Some of you may already know how upset I was by the passing of a teenage boy, Edward Sun, who drowned at Alice Lake last weekend. I won't ever forget seeing his feet and swimming shorts as two people performed CPR on him. He looked so small (simply my perception, only being able to see the bottom half of him) that initially, I thought he was a younger child. I hope this picture I found of him tonight will help me erase that image.

When we left the park, I handed my son to my husband and cried. I didn't want to hold my son as I wept because I was worried I would scare him by squeezing him too tight as I bawled. I couldn't get it out of my head: he was somebody's child. Not mine, but somebody's. When I heard that he had died the following morning, I just kept thinking about his mother. How dare I claim such sorrow. How must she feel? The friends who were with him that day?

I'm certainly not saying the daily reporters who can do it are heartless - my dad continued doing it for more than a decade after Christine Jessop died, though he did move on to cover politics. He can be grumpy, but he's certainly full of heart. I am saying I can't do it. I'll write promo stuff, I'll blog, and I may write for papers and magazines again about causes that move me. But I'm simply not made of the right stuff to make a go of the mainstream dailies.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Freedom of the press? Not in Toronto.

(photo from The Globe and Mail)

Rights and freedoms in Canada

1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Fundamental Freedoms

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Apparently not. At least not when it comes to gatherings of international leaders in Canada like the G20.

Now I'm not all normally, "Fuck the police," but this is out of control.

Check out this video by journalist Brandon Jourdan. According to the description on youtube, his arrest begins at 1:08. Unfortunately, it's not embedding properly on my blog right now, so live with the link please.

The Toronto Star reported on what 20 people identified as protesters, bystanders, walkers-by and yes, reporters, experienced. And it wasn't pretty.

Said Amy Miller: "'I was throttled at the neck and held down. Next thing you know I was being cuffed and put in one of the wagons.' She says she was threatened and harassed by police at the Eastern Ave. detention centre. 'I was told I was going to be raped, I was told I was going to be gangbanged, I was told that they were going to make sure that I was never going to want to act as a journalist again.'”

Adam MacIsaac - Alternative Media Centre, Independent Journalist from Darren Puscas on Vimeo.

She was there with Adam MacIssac (seen in the above video), also described as an independent journalist, who The Star reported: "Police began kicking him in the ribs and stunning him with a stun gun. 'I have a pacemaker!' he screamed repeatedly, but says they didn’t listen." He was later told by the police that they had no idea where his $6,000 worth of camera equipment was and that he should file a complaint.

Now I'm not sure if there's a difference between an independent and freelance journalist. I've worked on staff and I've worked freelance. And I'm not going to debate whether one is a 'real' journalist over the other - I'm sure many already are. But once we start doing that, it's a slippery slope.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter because a Globe and Mail staffer, Lisan Jutras was caught in one melee. Though she didn't have credentials to cover the G20, her tweets were used by the Globe as she first attempted to get out of the crowd and was eventually arrested.

So I guess we're free to report. We just have to be aware we may be arrested, beaten, threatened and have our gear stolen in the process. Duly noted.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ode to corporate communications

Special thanks to my friend Tana - the creative mind behind she of many projects - for posting this on Facebook. It speaks to me. Courtesy of Smashing Magazine.

It's okay not to work sometimes

So I'm at home this afternoon because my kid was up late last night with a fever, then puked this morning. I booked it to work after taking said kid to see the doctor. He magically perked up as he walked into the examination room, leaving hubby and I looking like morons who bring their offspring in for every cough and sneeze. Seriously, he felt like a piece of hot coal just 30 minutes before that. Oh well.

Anyway, I'm lucky enough to work for an employer who doesn't get all, "Hey, when will you be making up that time?" Rather, the partners are generally, "Please go home and make sure he's okay. And keep the familial germs there while you're at it, thank you very much!"

That said, I have remote access to my work email, desktop and such, so just tried logging in with all three passwords I've invented for my current work purposes. Nada. Access denied. And I feel shitty for it. Why the hell can't I remember it? Never mind that I told my coworkers to call if they need me. What if the sky falls at 3:51 p.m. and I'm not available to fix it? What if someone needs some last-minute proofing and a client's livelihood absolutely depends on it? What if?

Then I think about it. On my walk home, I called and chatted with my Dad. It was his first day of vacation. Or rather, it was supposed to me until he got an email that he had to be at an 11:30 a.m. meeting. Then he was on his crackberry for much of the day in further talks, some spawned by that meeting, some not.

You know what? My kid's sick. It's 2:34 on a Friday afternoon. The clients will live if they can't reach me for the next 2:26 hours.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Guess what? Writing is a specialized skill!

Why is it that so many non-creatives think creative jobs involve no special skill-set whatsoever? I've experienced it and just about every writer, graphic designer and photographer I've known has dealt with it.

It's that condescending attitude of, "Oh sheesh, how hard can it be? And why should you be paid a living wage to do it?" And my favourite: "I can do that much better than you."

You know what? Chances are, you can't. I don't just have a fancy piece of paper and years of experience to back me up; I have happy clients, editors, interview subjects and clients alike. And they drastically outweigh the number of people I've encountered who assume I'm just some hack who got lucky.

But for some reason - likely that I take everything so bloody personally - I let the non-believers get under my skin.

Cheapskates in Freelance-Land:
As a freelancer, it generally happens when someone you hope is a potential client finds out your rates.

If you're lucky: the conversation will end and you'll never hear from them again. One day, you may stumble across a poorly-written, cliche-ridden web page or brochure they put together. Initially, you'll feel anger. Then you'll laugh at them.

If you're not so lucky: you'll get the big lecture on how the service you offer isn't really all that special. "Oh, my Uncle Fred just bought a new camera. He'll shoot my wedding, thanks. You're much too expensive." Or maybe, "I'll look at getting someone on staff to do it. My personal assistant writes great letters!"

If you work on staff, it may happen in three cases:

1. With clients. It may come in the form of a micromanager who just doesn't quite want to give up the power. It could be someone who works in the creative field, but the job was farmed out for whatever reason by their superior - in other words, they're bitter and will do all they can to undermine you. Or maybe it's simply someone who recently discovered clip art and wants to wow you with their newfound design prowess.

2. With colleagues. Writers in particular may discover colleagues who work in more technical areas think you're just some hippie-dippy artsy fart who throws shit together at the last possible minute. Generally speaking, they resent you for having an arts-related degree and daring to be in the same room as them. They usually have limited interpersonal skills.

3. With superiors. If your manager or art director started out in the same profession you now work in, you will likely never live up to the incredibly high standards they set in the industry. They will nitpick your work and may even at times, do the work themselves from beginning to end without involving you in the process. In short, they'll constantly remind you who's boss. This is my favourite - it always makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

My point is, if you're a creative out there who's going through any of the above scenarios, you're not alone. If anyone has any tips for dealing with this sort of insanity constructively, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Clichés in journo-land

"It's every parent's worst nightmare."

Whenever a conversation turns to clichés in journalism, I immediately think of the fine example above. I mean, what is every parent's worst nightmare? Kidnapping? Death by serial killer? Incurable illness? Colicky baby? Junior fails to make it into daddy's alma mater? A 20-something who refuses to move out of his parents' basement?

According to The Independent, for one dad, it was his daughter becoming a "national hate figure" and "notorious lesbian" by appearing on Big Brother - eek! A google search for headline + "Every parent's worst nightmare" unearthed 21,300 hits.

I was first tuned in to the idiocy of this particular cliché by Don Gibb, a journalism prof at Ryerson (now a professor emeritus - he retired in 2008). He was a guest-lecturer in my first-year print class. His affable manner made his discussion a particular fun one and it's stuck with me since 1995-ish.

I thought of Don after reading this story in the Australian, "At the end of the day, they are journalism's worst clichés."

Why avoid clichés? Generally speaking, using a cliché is lazy. Clichés are often untrue stereotypes.

Then again, when they're used, they give us word nerds endless amusement.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is there hope for TV journos?

Having worked as a reporter for a good part of my professional life, I'm always curious to see how journalists are portrayed on TV shows and movies. I recall growing up, the depiction of ambulance-chasing hacks always elicited an eye-roll and a heavy sigh from my dad. And if a fake reporter asked the dreaded question - "How do you feel?" - immediately after a tragedy, it would usually prompt a succinct rant from him.

So it was interesting to see how reporters were played in two of my favourite shows this week. First, it was Glee. For those of you who don't watch it, a magazine reporter visited the school, assigned to write a story on the Cheerios, the cheerleading squad. In fact, he was going to write an expose on the show's villain, the squad coach played with venomous perfection by Jane Lynch. However, he may have been hoodwinked into thinking she was in fact an inclusive, groundbreaking breath of fresh air. He promised her a glowing review.

Now I'm hoping his whole, "This story is going to change your career," promise (don't hate me if I'm not getting it word for word - my memory isn't what it once was) could mean he will indeed change it for the worse. Fingers crossed. She's the bad guy after all. It would be a cool opportunity to put that rotten Sue Sylvester in her place. And that's what a real journalist would do. Only time will tell, I guess.

Then it was on to V. Yeah, I watch musicals and sci fi. I'm weird that way. Scott Wolf plays the douchey TV reporter, Chad Decker. Each episode has me wondering if he's really kissing some major alien ass or if he'll end up becoming part of team humans/Fifth Column that try to bring the V down. He plays the part of the vain TV reporter really well, but every now and then he shows a glimmer that there's more going on in his head than dreams of ratings or brain damage from all that hair product. Whether he has a true interest in doing what's best for humanity or just wants a really juicy story remains to be seen.

Anyway, my point is it's pretty cool to see some potential for how journos are played in our entertainment sources and see them break out of the, "How does it feel?" box. Keep it up.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Summer memories reignited

Grandma & Me, 2004, by gscameraworks.

So I spoke with my mom on the weekend. My grandma isn't doing very well. She fell again and the doctor wants her to use a wheelchair. In fact, he doesn't want her trying to leave the wheelchair without help. This formidable woman who her younger sisters always lauded as the smart one is now mentally confined by dementia.

I wrote this story several years ago as part of a series based on my memories of the summers I spent on grandma and grandpa's farm. This one was her favorite.

That Beautiful Place

It was the middle of summer and the dreams were growing more frequent. I guess it’s only natural that I’d dream of the one place I spent so many summers growing up – the farm.

Sometimes the dreams were so real, I’d nearly cry when I woke up, angry that my beautiful trip had been interrupted by the alarm clock. Other times, the dreams were more abstract, almost like a Picasso painting – I knew where I was, but nothing was where I’d expect it to be, all a little off.

When I was a kid, I wished the house was the same, yet different. Always snooping around, I was forever hoping I’d find a secret stairwell to an unknown room full of, well, something exciting. Not money or anything so crass – rather I wanted to discover anything from generations past – old clothing, records, books, anything that could document times gone by. Sure, there was always the old storage room, but I was looking for…more.

Even though I never did find that secret room, I can remember the house had a very palpable soul – something that in hindsight, was way better than any jackpots I could have found. It certainly wasn’t haunted, not in the least. Rather there was a good old soul that had been there and seen everything through three generations. It was comforting.

Anyway, back to the dreams that got me thinking about that beautiful place. It’s funny, it’s not the big events that took place there that stand out. It’s all the small details that are etched in my mind. Like waking up before anyone except Grandpa – who almost always seemed to be awake before any other living being. The old timey music on the radio only seemed to exist in that one place – Grandma and Grandpa’s kitchen. The plastic tablecloth would save the heavy table from any toast crumbs that would inevitably sprinkle from my mouth.

Sometimes I’d get outside early enough that the dew was still on the ground. I’d just go out and breathe in the fresh morning air and have a chat with the dogs. If I got up a little later, I’d be lucky enough to trek to the end of the laneway and get the mail, which seemed to be a pretty major event, at least for the person who got to do it. Wandering outside, barn to barn for what seemed like hours, in fact, it was probably only minutes before an encounter with a wayward wasp would send me running back to the safety of the house.

I’d grab a book from the endless pile I’d picked up during a trip to the library with Grandma. When I was older, I’d snag one of her many Harlequin Romance books. My parents and usually an aunt or uncle would tsk that I was inside on such a beautiful day. They just seemed incapable of understanding that it could be a beautiful day inside too.

Sometimes my mind would wander. I’d stare at the door in the living room that didn’t lead anywhere since the veranda outside it was torn down – the veranda that was long gone before my day, but still there in all the old photos. I’d imagine what the house was like then and for whatever reason in my child’s mind, I imagined things would be a whole lot different with a veranda. Maybe it was the soul of the house talking to me, igniting my imagination so it would run wild.

Eventually, I’d tire of the reading and mind games and retreat upstairs for a nap in Grandma’s bed. I remember waking up, and still groggy, walking to the window. The pink curtains were moving slightly in the breeze. I’d look out at the trees and a sadness welled up inside me, knowing one day I would have to leave.

Then I’d push the sad feelings away and simply bask in all the house had to offer – warmth, contentment and safety. Those are the feelings I remember, the true treasures I ended up finding all those summer days at the farm.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why not a writer?

I was chatting with another writer this week about what we wanted to be when we were in high school. Turns out both of us wanted to be actors.

I didn't pursue it because the university programs I looked at required a singing audition. (Those of you who know me can pick yourselves up off of the floor now. I know I can't sing. Well, my son thinks I can, but he's only 3.)

My fellow scribe, on the other hand, didn't pursue acting because her parents wouldn't accept it and likely wouldn't have paid the bill for a fine arts degree. She did get a degree in another area that lead to writing, but she still feels like she disappointed her parents. I just don't get it.

Here's why. I ended up getting my first BA in Law. I flitted between Mass Communications and Law but ended up in Law because a) I was fascinated by it, b) second-year stats in Mass Comm nearly killed me and I just couldn't fathom doing it in my third year and c) one of the mandatory third-year Mass Comm courses was full and I would have had to take it in fourth year, dragging my degree into five years. No thanks. Law it was.

I toyed with the whole law school idea and even wrote the L-SAT once. I barely passed it and didn't get into any of the law schools I applied for. I worked a year of full-time retail knowing it would force me to make a decision one way or the other. I liked Mass Comm because I got to study the media. And I always enjoyed story-telling. Journalism it was. I somehow managed to get into the two-year program at Ryerson University. And then I managed to get work in the field when I graduated. I'm still plugging away, now as a technical writer.

My point is, there was never any point at which my parents told me or even hinted to me that I was a disappointment. Now, some of that may be because my dad was a reporter for many years. But I think most of it was because they had experienced moments where they were told they had to do something because it was expected of them.

My dad came from a poor family so the school system of the day tried to force him into hands-on courses like shop. I guess the reasoning then was that without money, you couldn't afford to continue your education at a university, so needed a trade. Or it could have been as mean-spirited and unfounded as if you didn't have money, you simply weren't suited for the more "academic" courses. (I know some brilliant mechanics, including my father-in-law, so I don't subscribe to this sort of outdated thinking). If you met my dad you would know how ridiculous this is. My sister told him how to put the gas barbecue together when she was 9. Handy he's not.

My mom, even though she came of age in the late 60s, grew up in a conservative, rural area. She was accepted by every university she applied to. But she decided to get married and have kids. You simply didn't do both where she was from.

So I guess my parents figured they wouldn't inflict their own expectations on us when it came to the professions my sister and I chose (she has a fine arts degree and worked for many years as a photographer). They never made me feel like they needed a lawyer in the family. They made me get my pictures taken for both graduations so they could send them to the extended family. My dad's media friends knew who I was by the time I graduated because he wouldn't shut up about me and how bloody proud he was.

I'll just never get people who can't encourage their children's dreams and goals. I'd like to thank my parents for being cool enough to let me figure it out on my own. I plan to do the same for my kid. And now I've said it on the internets, so you guys can keep me honest.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spreading the word on mental illness

Something I love about writing is the opportunity it gives me to learn more about things I feel strongly about and raise awareness of them. It's something I particularly enjoyed as a freelancer. Working in communications, these types of opportunities don't always present themselves in traditional ways, but they still happen now and then.

Before I left Douglas College, I volunteered to be an extra playing a patient in the Women's Chronic Unit at Riverview Hospital circa 1940-something for a reenactment scene being shot for a documentary called Bedlam. Above is a shot of me on set, shot by Mikki Herbold.

The film is a project by Heidi Currie, a criminology prof I met while working at Douglas, and filmmaker Lisa G (Lisa's the one with the camera). It's a continuation of their project Asylum. Heidi teaches a course on working with offenders with mental disorders.

I knew about Asylum as it had been part of a larger series of events at the college I had publicized last spring. Last fall, I posted a story on the employee blog that Heidi needed extras for her new project and figured, "Why not?"

The new documentary focuses on Kay, who took a job at Riverview during WWII at age 16 – she tells the story of her first day at work as Bedlam’s narrator.

The treatment of people with mental illness has improved markedly since then, when the patients at the Women's Chronic Unit were unmedicated and wards were understaffed. We wore drab tunics and grey wool socks and were essentially stripped of any identity we had outside of our characters' respective illnesses.

At one point, a nurse on set who had worked at Riverview years ago said we looked the part but were much too quiet. For a relatively short period of time, we were told to pump up the volume. For me, playing a depressive, this meant sobbing. Hard. I only had to do it for 10 minutes or so. I experienced postpartum depression a few years back and I simply thought of how alone I felt in order to pull what I needed to from my guts and do a good job. It made me sad to think that if I had been born in the wrong era, I could have been in a ward at Riverview, rather than feeling a heck of a lot better within a few months with the right medication and counselling. And it made me angry.

Provincial dollars for healthcare, including support and services for people with mental illness, have been decimated in BC. Well, redirected, says Heidi - there is limited access to mental health services until someone with ends up in the prison system. Then the province deems it important. Talk about too little, too late. Heidi also told me that there is very little documented history of Riverview so Bedlam will be an important educational piece on BC's mental health system.

Sadly, underfunding and poor access to mental health services isn't limited to BC or adults. Through a remarkable Twitter campaign sparked by TheNextMartha, I discovered No Points for Style, a blog by Adrienne Jones, whose son has bipolar disorder. Her story gave me the much-needed kick in the ass to put this entry together as the film shoot was in January. Not helping kids is just plain wrong and makes me much angrier than I think I can possibly express.

My thinking is the more people understand the history, they more they will see the danger in backtracking to having little government support for people with mental illness. I know it's a cliche, but hey, knowledge is power. And if I can play a small part in getting that knowledge out there by spending a Saturday playing a Riverview patient from back in the day, I'll gladly do it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Low pay = cheap boss

So my clever headline is a play on the Globe and Mail headline that caught my interest today.

Does low pay = high passion?

It's a conundrum that writers and other creatives are often forced to face - must I live on slave wages for the rest of my life in order to do something I love?

Let me give you some context here. The Globe and Mail's Dave McGinn features an employer - internet entrepreneur Ben Huh - up top. Huh weeds out job applicants by posting entry-level jobs at low-paying wages. His rationale is that way, he'll find people who are passionate about the work, not the paycheque, and noted that those who focus on the $ tend to be the worst candidates. Huh blogged about this last month - read it benhuh!com.

Now, let's emphasize that Huh's talking about entry-level jobs here and I'm going to go on a bit of a tangent straight off. My issue is that way too many employers of creatives are using the same argument when filling positions that require experience. I know - until recently, I had been looking for writing work on and off for about a decade while freelancing. And I'm not alone - I hang out with other writers, along with a number of photographers, graphic designers and artistes. I now have a writing job I enjoy with a decent wage and other perks, so it is possible, folks!

There seems to be an assumption that anyone can do creative jobs, so we don't deserve a decent living wage but should be grateful to have someone to pay us pennies for our efforts. I've done a few 'writing tests' that resulted in nothing (one did, however, land me my last job featuring relatively low pay balanced by kick-ass benefits). Forget the fact that many of us are educated in our fields and have continued our education in order to stay on top of technical demands. Forget the years upon years of experience we have.

It's not necessarily better for freelancers. For years, PWAC (the Professional Writers' Association of Canada) has been lobbying for better freelance rates for writers. Bad Writing Contracts is a coalition of Canadian writers fighting for better contracts (read 'better pay') too. Writers' rates, particularly in Canada, have remained frozen for about 30 years.

Whether you're looking at staff positions or freelance jobs, the problem is the same. We're too often undervalued for what we do because we are artists. We are supposed to be flakey, fluffy, hippies who don't care about things like paying rent or frivolous purchases like groceries for our kids. We're supposed to be grateful for that ever-elusive byline. We should explode like KITH's chicken lady upon seeing our words in print. I call bullshit.

When you, my fellow creatives, don't stand your ground and accept less than you are truly worth, you devalue the work of every other creative out there. You give the man (sorry, slipping into that flakey hippie jargon), a reason to continue to devalue the work of other creatives too. And then this ridiculous cycle never ends.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

You say goodbye, I say hello

So dear readers, I've been rather neglectful in my blogging duties. But I have a good reason, honestly. I was in the process of negotiating and ultimately accepting a new job. Then, once that was done, all I wanted to do was write about the fact that I have a new job effective March 1, but I didn't want to possibly jinx things (signed offer aside) by tempting the cosmos to jerk this new opportunity away from me. I'm weird that way. Now that I'm wrapping things up on my last day with the college, I feel pretty safe in blogging about my new adventure.

It's pretty cool because while this new job will use the skills I already have, I'll also get to learn more about writing for the web, SEO and all that fun stuff that I keep hearing will be good for my career. And I agree that it will be good for me. They have a terrific team, some of whom I'm friends with (hey, it's who you know in this business) and the location is superb: Yaletown - no more commuting!

However, there's still a part of me that is kinda sad because it means I'm moving further away from my first career as a journalist. Though my ultimate love is the writing part of it, I also have to admit that I get a buzz out of the whole process of creating a story in the more journalistic sense - interview someone who has something interesting to talk about, learn more about them, find that human interest story that will make people want to read past that first sentence and finally, write.

Today, I went out with a bang. Last day working for the college, I interviewed Patrick Gallagher, a.k.a. the short-shorts wearing football coach Ken Tanaka on Glee. Super-cool guy, very down to earth. Last summer, I interviewed another successful Canadian actor, Fred Ewanuick (that's me and Fred, his new show Dan for Mayor premieres next Monday at 8:30pm on CTV, by the way). Fred was also very gracious, very much a guy you can picture having a beer and watching the game with.

Whether I'm meeting someone famous in the traditional sense or someone who becomes a community hero like the college's Olympic torch bearer, Anna Solnickova, I love meeting people and finding out what makes them tick. I'm nosy.

Of course, a huge part of my sadness is because I'm leaving a team of people I really like. But you can't stay somewhere just because you like the people. We'll still see each other and trade war stories. Indeed, our get-togethers will likely be all that much more interesting because we won't be seeing one another every day. There'll be new dirt, which always helps fulfill my nosy nature.

And yes, I'm still writing and learning, and that's the key. I write, I learn, I'm happy. If I'm really jonesing to do an interview, I can always write a freelance piece.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cool Globe story

Just read today's Tuesday Essay, Mysterious and Terrible and Crazy in the Globe. It touches on the same topic as my post last week, Naysayers, Deniers and PITAs.

However, it goes well beyond the bitchings and criticisms of family members over who started the drunken mashed potato fight at Thanksgiving back in '78 and touches on some heavy stuff, namely Todd Babiak's struggle with whether or not to have a character burn in a fire in his sedan in his latest book, Toby: A Man. Babiak's own father burned in a fire in his sedan in 2002.

He writes, "Novelists aren't supposed to worry about what their mothers and brothers think, but I do. I worry about it constantly. If readers know some bits of the book are true, perhaps they will think everything is true. This would not bode well for my mother's reputation."

Thought for food, indeed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Naysayers, deniers and PITAs

Whether you're writing a blog, a column or your autobiography, you're likely basing at least some of what you write on your opinion. Which opens you up to criticism by those who already know you along with those who wouldn't know you from Adam (or Eve for that matter). Perhaps they're jealous that you're a writer and they suck at it. They could simply be the type who has to crap on everyone's parade. Or they're the one who never quite remembers things the way everyone else does. I call them them the naysayers, deniers and pains in the ass (I did notice that my plural in the headline seems off - shouldn't it be PsITA?)

For instance, a friend of mine said I made her sound like a bitch in a piece I wrote. It was not meant to be published (and still hasn't been, though maybe I'll throw it on the blog one day for shits and giggles), rather it was something I wrote for personal reasons. Actually, I thought it was humorous. But she was clearly not happy with my portrayal of her, even though it was my truth. I love her to bits, but I'd say she's a bit of a denier.

And now that I think of it, my grandma was a bit of a denier too with a similar style of piece I wrote. That one wasn't for publication either. It was one of a few stories I put together for my grandma. My mom actually told me not to include it in the collection. I did some edits which better explained grandma's frame of mind at the time in question, but I kept the story in there. Hey, they're my memories, after all.

However, the goal of the story was to make grandma laugh, not cry, so with some minor changes, it was suitable for reading by family members. Grandma still claimed to not remember the incident in question (the crux of it was she told my sister, "Make your own goddamned lunch" when we were kids - I'll post the story here some day so you can read it for yourself) but she was entertained nonetheless.

The question of what to do when challenged by family or friends on what you write came up a few years ago when I was teaching a night class. The course was called "Turning Personal Anecdotes into Publishable Stories" (yeah, kinda wordy, I know). Anyway, I told my students the same thing I'll tell you: if the story is important enough to you, write what you need to write. If it's going to feel good to write it and you know it's a good story, tell it. Once you start editing out of fear of what other people may think, it's no longer your story. And it loses everything that makes it special.

End of story.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Writing about death

So on this bright and sunny day, I'm thinking about writing about death. Perhaps it's because we've just come out of about a week of rain. It could be all the death that's been happening in the last little while: in Haiti, the mom run over and killed in Toronto, journalist Michelle Lang in Afghanistan.

It got me thinking about how tough it is to write about death, particularly when the deceased was young and healthy. One of my early assignments as a reporter at The Hill Times was writing an obituary for a senator - it certainly wasn't a joyful occasion, but he had lead a full life and been around to see and be a part of a lot of cool things in his career. I spoke with his friends and colleagues who were sad, but expected his death.

I didn't get off so easily the next time I wrote an obit. A young man who had gone to the same university as me died after wiping out going full-speed on his rollerblades. I remembered his name as he'd been heavily involved with the student government. When he died, he was working for a high-profile cabinet minister. His death was stupid and senseless. He hadn't been wearing a helmet and had no I.D. on him, so it wasn't until the day after the accident when his coworkers started making calls that anyone found out what had happened to him. He was in a hospital on life support until his family was able to come from out of province to say their final goodbyes. I went to his service, but didn't speak with anyone there. I was terrified, quite honestly and still very green as a reporter. But there were other reporters there, so I felt comfortable taking notes and wrote about it accordingly.

A couple years later, it got harder. Liberal MP Shaughnessy Cohen collapsed in the House of Commons and later died in the hospital of a cerebral hemorrhage. The next day, I was outside of the House with my news editor. Did I mention I was also the paper's photographer? I got to take photos of her mourning friends. I felt pretty shitty about it. Yeah, it was my job, but it still felt wrong. This assignment was particularly tough as Ms. Cohen had been close with some of the reporters. I was still new enough that I didn't really know her, but for some reason, seeing the people I considered mentors break down was particularly difficult. Thankfully, my editor came with me to an interview I had with a couple of her friends, reporter Susan Delacourt and I believe Mary Clancy who if memory serves me correctly, was no longer an MP at that point.

My final stint as a reporter dealing with death came after I had written a piece for Canadian Living about young breast cancer survivors. One of the women I had interviewed, Gabi Helms, passed away months after the story ran. When I'd last spoken with her, she was frustrated that the cancer treatment had possibly left her infertile. Well, she did get pregnant but the cancer came back. She gave birth to a girl and died days after her birth. One of the other women I'd interviewed contacted me to let me know. She later warned me that another member of their circle had come under fire for contacting a local daily about it. She said I was welcome to come to the service, but not as a reporter. I respected her request.

So what's my point other than depressing everyone who's reading this? Well, I'm not too sure to be honest with you. Perhaps my issues with reporting about death made me a bad reporter. Maybe they made me a more sensitive, respectful reporter. And it's not like I've escaped writing about death - last summer, Dave Still, a faculty member at Douglas College passed away unexpectedly. As editor of the employee blog, I had to cover it. But I had the luxury of time. I waited until his colleagues were ready. I simply ran the Q & A and let those who knew him best speak for themselves. It felt right doing it that way.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Complaining with authority

Over the holidays, the topic of writing letters of complaint came up a couple of times. In fact, I told a friend who had to write such a letter that we should start a business writing effective complaints.

Another friend noted that in many cases, the act of letter-writing can be cathartic, so offering a service such as the one I half-jokingly suggested may remove the therapeutic impact writing an angry letter can have. Which is a good point. However, catharsis often comes with writing a letter in anger - in other words, it's a way to let off steam. While it can be good for the spirit of the writer, the result is usually a letter that needs to be destroyed. If sent, it could do unintended harm to the writer him or herself.

So, is there a way to write a complaint so that it unleashes the anger in a witty, effective manner? Absolutely. I was faced with such a task last year during an ongoing pissing match with a neighbour. After months of hearing her pound on the floors and walls, she thoughtfully left the passive-aggressive letter you'll see above at our door. Though addressed to my husband, it was really a rant against my entire family. I've posted it here to give you an example of what not to do. And for your amusement.

When I read her diatribe and noted the many factual errors she made, Bugs Bunny's oft-used phrase, "This means war," sprung to mind. And in addition to making mistakes in her note, she gave me the ammunition needed to write the letter of all letters to my building manager.

As I put together my own letter (I'll simply include excerpts here for the sake of brevity), I kept a few points in mind.

Don't rant
I had already done my fair share of ranting with my friends after receiving the note. As fun as ranting can be, I knew that in order to get anywhere with my complaint to my building manager and see results, I had to keep my rage in check. The last thing I needed was for my landlord to see me as the aggressor and worse, a threat to other tenants. So instead of saying, "This bitch is crazy!" I simply stated, "We are being harassed continuously to the point that we feel we are unable to enjoy our space without anxiety."

Get your facts straight
Like I said, the battle with our neighbour had been going on for quite some time. I had previously written to our building manager, so I cited those letters. Also, the night she left her note at our doorstep, we happened to have friends over, including a lawyer and editor, both who were very familiar with landlord/tenant laws in our area. They suggested I look up the laws and cite them accordingly. In turn, the building manager cited the facts I included in my complaint in her own letter to our neighbour as follows: 28(b) states that tenants are to have “freedom from unreasonable disturbance”
47(1)(i) states that if a tenant has “significantly interfered with or unreasonably disturbed another occupant” that they may have his or her tenancy terminated.

I took the opportunity to also correct the incorrect statement that children aren't allowed in our building and remind our manager of our history in the building: X made several inaccurate points in her letter, the most offensive being that it is illegal for us to live here with our son. Nowhere in our lease does it state that children are not allowed in the building. In fact, it is illegal to bar someone from living in a building based on their having children unless it is a building for seniors only. When I was pregnant, we advised you of our situation. Clearly, if you had concerns with our having a child here, you would have told us.

Anticipate the rebuttal
I knew the rebuttal from my neighbour would be that the noise we made in our home was excessive. So before writing my letter, I confirmed with friends that if needed, they would write their own letters supporting my version of events. Know what the likely argument against your own will be and include points to refute it in advance.

Doing the above, I got what I wanted. The neighbour was sent a notice to cease harassing my family as she was in violation of her lease. In other words, quit it or you'll be looking for a new home. She's been sweet as pie since then. I still can't stand her, but hey, the stomping and nasty notes have stopped.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Here goes

Just starting with a brief intro here. I have to begin somewhere now that I actually have a follower! (Thanks, Bret.)

I write to make a living - I'm currently working in communications at a large community college. I've worked in a newsroom and done the freelance (read 'starving artist') thing.

But writing is also my passion and I'd like to think it's my forte. I love playing with words. I'm one of those annoying people who proofreads signs, my morning newspaper and holiday cards sent by my friends. Don't worry friends, I won't critique you privately or on the blog. That's just plain bitchy. But daily papers owned by monopolies that underpay and overwork their staff? Big businesses that spend millions of dollars on lame messaging that is supposed to appeal to the masses? They're fair game as far as I'm concerned.

Not that this blog will be all about dumping on bad writing. As fun as that can be, it's not terribly constructive. So with that in mind, I'll give you tips, vent when I'm having a mental block and talk a bit about what I'm working on. And I'll likely give the odd shout-out to someone who has crafted something clever.

If you find my posts particularly pithy, you may also want to follow me on twitter.